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Not very zippy, after all

Your Humble Blogger is quite late to the game in linking to ZIPskinny (beta), a site that takes the Census 2000 data and makes it available by ZIP code. I, of course, plugged in my own locality, which did not have a lot of surprises. We are rich, well-educated, white and old. Hurrah for us! We win! But that’s not all! We achieve all this richness, this well-educatedage, this whiteousness, and this oldicity while maintaining a population density of 7381and a half people per square land mile. In other words, we are rich, well-educated, white, old and urban. How can this be?

I did a comparison (or rather, fed a comparison into ZIPskinny) of the densest twenty ZIP areas in our fine state. My area is 14th, by the way, out of 20. The first thing that jumps out is that 06269 is a bizarre outlier. What’s up with that? Nobody at all below the poverty line? 99% with a high school degree, and 84.9% with a bachelor’s? A median income of $87,945? 78.4% single, and only 0.3% divorced? Only 26.1% of residents have been there more than five years? The median age is twenty, and 97% are under 30? Oh, right, it’s UConnsberg. Let’s just agree that that’s an outlier, and doesn’t really count.

Other than that, let’s see. By median income, we are only third richest out of the remaining nineteen, behind Stamford and Stamford. By percentage making more than $200,000 a year, we’re again third behind those. Also by $150K plus, and by $100K plus. At the bottom end, by least making less than $10K, we’re in-between the two Stamfords, and again $15K minus, and again $25K minus, and by $35K minus we’ve slipped into third, and by $50K minus we’re still in third. We edge them on unemployment, but slip into second by percentage under the poverty line. So, OK, let’s call us third richest, behind 06906, 06902 in second, both with slightly less density than my local. By the way, none of the others is even close.

We’re the whitest, by a smidge over 06906. But take a look: mine is 78.3% white, 06906 is 73.3% white, then the drop is to 56.5%, then it’s under half. 06902, by the way, is 45.5% white, good for fourth. We’re the oldest, again over 06906, with 06902 fourth. For education, we’re second in graduate or professional degrees as well as four-year college degrees (behind N’Haven, again not counting Storrs), and second counting cumulatively as well. And we’ve got the oldest median age, as well. ZIPskinny doesn’t do a comparative breakdown by age group, but my local has a big sixty-plus cohort (13.3%), although not as big as 06906 (16.4%) or 06902 (17.1%).

What’s my point? My point is that if you look at the rest of the ZIP codes, they are poor, ill-educated and non-white. Fifteen, say, out of the nineteen (or twenty, if you want to throw Storrs back in) densest areas are immediately and obviously lousy places to live. Twenty percent poverty, twenty-five percent— five are at thirty percent poverty or more. Nine have a high-school degree rate of under two-thirds, eleven have a college-degree rate under 15%. Sixteen have median incomes below the national median. Fourteen have median incomes below the median income for Mississippi. Twelve have median incomes below the national median for black households. Five have a median income under $25,000 a year.

My point is that demographically speaking, richest, best-educated and whitest are synonyms if you are talking about urban areas. Compare, if you will, my ZIP code area with one of my neighbors. It’s only moderately dense, being on the north edge of Hartford, but it’s next door to my lovely, white, rich, dense, old neighborhood. It’s got a median income of $15,727. 44.8% of its residents are under the poverty line. Half have high-school degrees, but only 4.5% have college degrees. And, of course, it’s 3.3% white. Or look at this even closer neighborhood, with 31.1% below the poverty line. 54.5% with high-school degrees, 9.8% with college degrees. And, yes, 20.8% white.

My point is that this is a national scandal and a disgrace, and that if we are going to save our cities, our self-respect and incidentally the planet we should be taking not just affirmative but aggressive action through our state and federal governments. This is directly because of vile and vicious racism of the recent past, but at this point it goes beyond racism, it’s a decay that can’t be stopped by not-racism any more than you can fill a cavity by deciding to start brushing and flossing. I dare you, I demand, Gentle Readers, that you look at your own areas, and those of your neighbors, look at the poverty and wealth, and look at race, and see if we are doing enough about this.

Two Americas? Class war? Look, it would be bad enough just to admit to these enormous pockets of degradation and decay in our wealthy country. But they are race-based pockets of poverty, and it is a daily reproach. I’m shocked by it, and so should you be—every day all over again.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I'm wary of terms like "race-based" because it seems to me to elide away the distinction between "because they are not white" and "because their parents were poor". There's obviously a relationship there, but depending on which think is the cause of poverty, and which is coincident, the solutions are somewhat different.

It's not just that there's a relationship there, it's that their parents were poor because they were black, more specifically because of institutional and personal racism. Therefore they are poor because they are black.

But your point about solutions is well-taken, in that (as I said) the solution to racially imposed poverty is clearly not not-being-racist. But I think the distinction between deliberately created poverty (not on our part, but on the part of the society we live in in its recent past) based on race and a more general devil-take-the-hindmost poverty is significant in terms of the strength of the obligation on us (members of that society and that society as a whole, by means of its members) to address it.


I tend to agree with you, V, but it's hard to imagine how to fix the problem. Giving poor people money is really not a long-term solution, in a "teach a man to fish" kind of way. I tend to agree with conservative rhetoric that says welfare encourages future welfare.

It seems like the only way forward is affirmative-action-type programs. Problem with that, of course, is that it ignores the immediate, real problems of actual people who are actually poor right now, and whose kids, great, thanks, can go to college maybe fifteen years from now, but who need to pay this parking ticket or they won't be able to get to their minimum-wage job tomorrow.

A propos of a side-topic, I was thinking about taxes this morning on the ride to work, after a conservative friend last night was grousing about the taxes on her husband's salary, back when he was a contractor (as I am now).

I was thinking a flat tax would be nice, but 20% of $15K is really too much to take away from someone who only makes $15K, and 20% of $200,000 really seems like a pittance. I mean, after all, that's $200,000 EVERY YEAR! So maybe if it scaled, so that poor folk didn't have to pay so much, and rich folk had to shoulder more of the burden... And then we're back on a slope to the mess we've got now.

All these issues are thorny, and it sure would be nice if there were perfectly rational and compassionate entities who ran the government and took care of us all. Good luck with that, all you monkeys.


I tend to agree with conservative rhetoric that says welfare encourages future welfare.

Whereas letting people starve reduces the surplus population?

I guess I'd like to raise the question of how bad welfare is, exactly? I think, as a general principle, that it is good for people to work a reasonable amount. Work is good for health and self-esteem. But, when we have an economic system that doesn't make having work for people to do a priority, why should people who can't work, or who don't want to work (which opens up opportunities for those who do) have to live (at best) in squalor or (worse) without dependable sources of food, clothing, and shelter?

The problems that we face are daunting, but they are mostly daunting because we (that is, the citizens of the United States) generally have screwed up priorities. Rather than making it a priority to have thriving communities that support fulfilling, environmentally friendly lives for residents, we make it a priority to ensure that there are no barriers to a few people making huge fortunes in business, and then the Democratic wing of the Democratic party tries to sustain social programs that mitigate the predictably disastrous effects of our foundational economic policy on communities and individuals. The legacy of racism helps buttress the exploitative economy by muddying the policy waters.

If we changed our priorities, a variety of solutions to our problems would rapidly present themselves, I expect.

Apologies: I intended to mark the first sentence of my preceding post with [snark] tags, to avoid making it needlessly inflammatory, but I did not realize that the text editor would make anything in angle brackets disappear, whether it contained valid html coding or not.

Maybe it's growing up in the desert, but I was never convinced that teaching a man to fish was always the better option. It was too easy to imagine teaching him to fish and then walking away and leaving him to starve, because there are no fucking fish in the desert. Which is not to say that giving him a fish is a long-term solution. It's just that the short-term solution can be important, too, as you say.

I'm more or less in agreement with Chris that the solution is a fundamental shift in cultural priorities. I'd like to start with making our society ashamed of what's going on, and then try to keep ourselves from ignoring it, and then see what happens from there...


Chris: Thanks for the apology, but no offense was taken on my part.

You're both right that American priorities are stupid.

As for fishing in the desert, well, okay. Teach him to enslave his neighbors, have them work in the salt mines, and then sell the salt to the neighbors who he hasn't enslaved yet, if that works for you. I mean, it worked for the Egyptians for thousands of years, right? Teach him to [do something geographically and culturally useful], and you feed him for a lifetime.

My point is that teaching a person a way to make a living is better than giving a person a meal, in the long term. Sure, give them a meal, too, if they need one...

But the problem is (and this is my problem with welfare, and also my problem with Soviet communism) that if you give people their meals all the time, then they don't have to work for a living, and if your neighbor doesn't have to work for a living, then why should you? And if that mindset sinks in (and it does - people are weak that way), then there develops a culture of entitlement that seeks excuses for its laxity, rather than responsibility for its actions.

As extreme examples, please see the Soviet Union's collapse and the entitlement currently felt by capitalism's welfare corporations.

And, okay, Chris, if there's nothing to do, then why work? But can you seriously say there's nothing to do?

New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast generally could still use some rebuilding. Someone needs to figure out how to clean up the mess that industrialization has done. Logistics people are going to be needed to get all those soldiers out of the middle east.

Alaska needs a bridge to nowhere, I understand. There's a wall to build between us and Mexico. Iraq needs pacifying and Iran needs to be taught a lesson.

(Pick your work depending on your political sympathies.)

There's plenty to do.

And as for shame, I think the social movements in the late 50s and all through the 60s were the kind of cultural movement you're looking for, V, and I'm all about that. Peace, brethren. I think the first step is probably to destroy televisions and the hold that the conservative media has over the indolent nation in one swell foop.

Okay, that's not very realistic. Maybe we should get more liberal voices on the air, using tactics similar to the tactics of the conservative movement of the last 20 years.

Next step, anyone?


A briefer version of what I think Matt is getting at: It's not as good to (a) make people who are currently poor less currently poor; as it is to (b) make it easier for people who are currently poor to make themselves less poor in the future. Ideally, as V suggests, the immediate short-term future as well as the long-term future.

The problem with welfare is that it doesn't actually fix the problem, it just treats the symptoms. It's like giving someone a box of kleenex instead of a flu shot. (Or, in this case, making it easier for them to buy their own flu shot, e.g. by making flu shots less expensive.)

This is where big-business Republicans and small-government libertarians are sort of on the same side: Both believe that economic freedom is a good idea, but for somewhat different reasons... The former like the fact that it makes rich businessmen richer; the latter like the fact that it makes everyone richer. (In the flu shot example, you might want to eliminate onerous regulations that make it costly to produce flu vaccine, without having any other useful effect. Is that "increasing the profits of pharmaceutical companies", or "making flu shots more affordable for everyone"?)

(Assuming that you think that flu shots are a good idea in the first place, which you might not, but substitute the metaphor of your choice.)

My goal in life is not, however, to be rich, but to be comfortable and free of onerous obligation. Ideally, the society we live in would make it easy for not only the middle class but even the very poor to achieve this goal.

How you define comfort and onerous obligation, of course, may vary widely person to person, and that's what makes life interesting and fun (or something like that). I don't mind, for instance, paying taxes to support infrastructure, and I don't mind if that infrastructure includes universal health care and education subsidies.

I object to market subsidies, like keeping gasoline prices artificially low in the US, bailing out automotive companies that focus on unsustainable technology-paths for short-term profit, or rescuing lending institutions that made thousands of risky loans to people who weren't fully cognizant of the obligations they were incurring. Paying taxes to support that crap is onerous.

It's somewhat annoying that Democrats are forced to clean up the messes that Republicans make in the service of policies that don't actually work, over and over again. Taxation is necessary, people, if you want the zowie wars and the big SUVs and the National Security infrastructure that we've found so important over the last six years. Somebody's going to have to pay for all that, and it's too bad that the Republicans are going to leave the bad news to the Democrats (again), 'cause that'll just get the next batch of wasteful spenders in there, in another four or eight years. That's kind of onerous.

But having my grandchildren paying for Bush's little war? That will be worse. So I'll happily vote Democrat next time. One of these days, maybe we'll get a candidate who's actually liberal, in a time when my vote won't make a difference otherwise, and (s)he'll get my vote, like Nader in 2000.

But, man! I'm kind of mad at those 95,000 Floridians who voted for Nader in 2000. Jeez! What were you thinking, people?!?!


Side note: Chris, it's not that the text editors removes anything that's in angle brackets; it's that web browsers don't display anything that's in angle brackets. If you do a "View Source" on this comments page, you'll see that your <snark alert> quasi-tag is still there; it just doesn't appear in the browser. Web browsers ignore any HTML tags that they don't like or don't understand; that's been essential to the success of the web, because most people code bad HTML.

I hear you thinking: Aha! But Jed, you just displayed a pair of angle brackets, so you must be wrong!

But in fact I used a clever trick. If you want a less-than symbol ("<") to appear in a web page, you have to type it as ampersand-l-t-semicolon: &lt;. Similarly, a greater-than symbol is "&gt;".

if we were talking about a homogeneous society, i'd say helping people with food, shelter, and living expenses would be dangerous, but the fact is that two generations ago, the descendants of slave-holders still owned everything, and did it by manipulating the law, and that hasn't ended, though legal standing has improved.

most spanish-speaking and other native people have the same trouble. displaced farmer people.

to rectify this, the amount spent educating poor kids, per kid, should be double that spent on other kids. the amount spent on job training and job placement should be double. because the public's money is in large part wages not paid, and rent not paid, to their ancestors.

I can get behind that "double" figure, although it feels a little off-the-cuff. Also, you're going to run into the fact that there are poor 1st generation Russian immigrants, too, and my ancestors did fuck all to their ancestors.

Still, from my perspective, I am inclined to help poor people because they're poor NOW, not because the Ancestors of my National Soul oppressed the Ancestors of Theirs (although they surely did). And if double is what it takes to get poor kids educated and working in well-paying sectors, double it is.

To some large degree, I think there's a question of cultural assimilation that needs to be addressed, as well. Middle class folk understand, as the Monarch butterfly understands it is time to head south, how banking tools function, and that paying 10% (or whatever) to get your check cashed NOW is WAY more expensive than opening a checking account and learning how to manage money. Eating every day at MacDonalds is not cheaper than buying groceries and making food. Not subsisting on fast food and convenience drinks is less expensive than having diabetes for the last forty years of your life. Stuff like that.

I guess I'm just trying to make the argument that there are a lot of thorny issues all in one big bramble, and that simply paying double to educate the poor won't fix the problem, and it may tend to cause other problems. Not that it wouldn't necessarily be preferable to have those problems than the problems we currently have, just that life: it's big. Bigger than you, and you are not me.

Or something like that. At times like these, I revert to the wisdom of the prophets Bill and Ted, and their wisdom "Song lyrics, dude!" comes to me like a familiar mantra, comforting and lightening of my burdens, all at once.


if we were talking about a homogeneous society, i'd say helping people with food, shelter, and living expenses would be dangerous

It's my sense that in homogeneous societies, people are more rather than less willing to help people with food, shelter, and living expenses than they are in heterogeneous societies like ours. It's only when people are afraid of one another that they (in general) are reluctant to help those in need and develop elaborate rationalizations about why it would be immoral for them to do so.

It's not as good to (a) make people who are currently poor less currently poor; as it is to (b) make it easier for people who are currently poor to make themselves less poor in the future.

Perhaps, but current ideology seems to be that (a) precludes (b). I don't think that's true. Indeed, I believe that (a) facilitates (b) more often than not.

In any case, a large percentage of the people who are poor are not people who are in a position, given better tools and training, to make themselves less poor. A tremendous number of children are poor. Many elderly are poor. Many people who are physically or mentally disabled are poor. Poverty itself is damaging, so the more people a society allows to fall into poverty, the more people poverty will render incapable of helping themselves.

Children can be educated and some of the sick can be healed, so aid given to them may be of a kind that will help them make themselves less poor in the future. However, children learn better if they are well fed, clothed, and sheltered, and if their families are stable, all of which they are more likely to be if their parents are not poor. People are more likely to heal if they are well fed, clothed, and sheltered, and have good medical care, all of which conditions are more likely if they are not poor.

Given that a large number of poor people are poor because they are prevented, by age or infirmity, from working to support themselves, I see it as both prudent and compassionate simply to take the approach that society should make sure that no one lives in penury and want. The long-term benefits for children and sick people of escaping poverty far outweigh any damage to a society's work ethic.

Let me go farther: people _should_ feel entitled to a fair share of their community's wealth. That sense of entitlement is a strong barrier against the formation of plutocracy and its associated injustices. If a community sees work that needs to be done that isn't being done, then those who are able but not working should be called upon to do that work. Most people, I think, like to be useful and to help other people. Being useful is a very different thing from working a mindless, dead-end job for which one is paid a pittance in order to serve the convenience (not the needs) of others who can afford to pay.

Well, okay, and on paper, idealistic communism, such as you're describing, Chris, is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, I can't think of a single real-world instance where it has actually worked out for a nation-state.

Correct me, if I'm wrong.


Let me go farther: people _should_ feel entitled to a fair share of their community's wealth.

The problem is that feeling entitled to wealth isn't actually what creates wealth. At least some of us have to feel like we're not going to be wealthy unless we go out and make ourselves (or our community) wealthy, and a sense that we're entitled to be wealthy -- that if we're not wealthy, it's someone else's fault -- is an obstacle to that.

Not an insurmountable obstacle, especially among small groups of friends and family. But you don't even need something as big as a nation-state for it to start breaking down; any community where people aren't strongly invested in ensuring the success of everyone else in the community will have this problem.

Communism and community are different concepts, Matt. What Chris is describing sounds nothing like either political or economic communism to me. That aside,

It's not as good to (a) make people who are currently poor less currently poor; as it is to (b) make it easier for people who are currently poor to make themselves less poor in the future.

I'd say neither is as useful as making it less hazardous to be poor. In a society that uses money, there will be rich and poor people. Some goods and services will be out of reach for the poor. Right now in America those goods and services include heat, health care, and food, and that makes poverty devastating. It doesn't have to be that way.

We collectively choose which goods and services are free or subsidized and which are taxed. We choose which are regulated and which are not. We choose which are public and which are private. We choose whether usage of public services should be metered or not and at what level. We don't see most of those choices because we don't constantly rethink most of those choices. But those choices are our responsibility as a society.

We've decided that it should not cost individuals money to have some access to libraries, schools, trash collection, fire and police departments, roads, and urban sidewalks. That's a set of choices we've made. We can make a different set of choices, and I believe we should both for pragmatic reasons and for moral reasons.

Thanks, Michael, for noting the difference between Communism and community. It is a failing of our current political discourse that serious consideration of how to create stronger communities is rejected out of hand by calling it Communism and saying that it can't work at the level of the nation-state.

Both Matt and Irilyth suggest that the kinds of solutions I am talking about can't work at the level of the nation-state. I think that, given the immense variation among nation-states, their assertions are factually incorrect. But it's obvious that nothing about a policy's success in Andorra implies that the policy will succeed in the United States, and I agree that, at the present time, the nation-state that is the United States is incapable of successfully implementing the kind of policies that I am talking about.

I have hope, as I think Vardibidian does, for cultural change that might make enable us to have more humane policies at the national level. However, in the case of SCHIP, which began this discussion, we have a case in which the federal government is attempting to prevent smaller political units from implementing more humane policies.

I am not advocating "Big Government" solutions to problems, but at present the Big Government that we have is actively impeding reform. I'm all for local solutions, but when the national government won't permit local solutions, we have to deal at the national level at least enough to make local solutions legal.

Irilyth wrote:

The problem is that feeling entitled to wealth isn't actually what creates wealth. At least some of us have to feel like we're not going to be wealthy unless we go out and make ourselves (or our community) wealthy, and a sense that we're entitled to be wealthy -- that if we're not wealthy, it's someone else's fault -- is an obstacle to that.

It seems to me that you are misconstruing my phrase "entitled to a fair share of the community's wealth" when you respond by talking about "feeling entitled to wealth." Feeling entitled to a share of wealth is not the same thing as feeling entitled to be wealthy.

If one's expectations are tied to the wealth of the community, then one can only have a share of the wealth that one's community creates. If the community is poor, one can hardly expect one's share to be large. The idea that "wealth creation is somebody else's problem" would arise only if one does not actually see oneself as a member of the community.

Moreover, I am doubtful that most wealth is created by people going forth with the intention of becoming wealthy. If one wants to be wealthy, it is generally much easier (particularly in an economy structured as ours is) to capture wealth than to create it. Most people who become wealthy do so by capturing (or consolidating, if you prefer) wealth that has been created by many, many people. Some people do become wealthy by creating wealth, but in many cases those people did so not because they were driven to become wealthy in a monetary sense, but because they wanted to make something: they had an idea about how to do or make something better. If "wealth" is used in the broadest sense of intellectual, cultural, and material resources on which one can draw, then I would agree that wealth is created by people who want to be wealthy, but not if "wealth" is understood in the narrower sense of money.

In developing economic and social policy that serves the interests of citizens, we could improve our situation by making wealth capture a lot more difficult and creating many more incentives for wealth creation.

Michael: My understanding of idealistic Communism can be summed up as "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need." Is that not what Chris is describing?

I would tend to agree that, in effect, political and economic communism have historically been incomplete or inept implementations of idealistic communism. But I don't know that a complete, ept implementation of idealistic communism is really possible in the long term, even on a very small scale.

Otherwise, I think I'm pretty much in agreement with you. Making it less hazardous to be poor is probably the most ideal solution to the problem, and I would say is the approach taken by most successful cases.

Chris: Well, actually, I'd be delighted if policies such as these did work on a national level, as I agree with you that they are humane and desirable policies. If you can think of any examples where they do work, let me know.

My scepticism is that they have ever historically worked on any but the smallest scale. Andorra, for instance, has a population of 70,000. Roanoke, where I live, has a population of 200,000, and it's considered a pretty small American city...

There's also the fact that the Andorran economy seems to be based on consolidating wealth, extending banking benefits to entities of extreme wealth. Do they then distribute the wealth equally between all citizens? I can't tell. But there doesn't seem to be much of "creating" wealth going on in Andorra...

Anyway, I think we're all in agreement that Our Only Government is doing a lousy job of taking care of Our Only Citizens. The little disagreements come primarily, I think, in the details of how much the government should take care of the citizenry.

Irilith: very little
Me: more than Irilith
Michael, Chris and V: maybe more than me


why stop with the government? our thinking in general stinks. we're living in the past.

In reverse order:

How do you reckon?

Your thinking and mine, or the thinking of All Americans Everywhere, or Human Consciousness in general?

Stop what with the government?


in your last graf, you said,

I think we're all in agreement that Our Only Government is doing a lousy job of taking care of Our Only Citizens.

with which i disagree:

why stop with the government? our thinking in general stinks. we're living in the past.

and i shall interpret. i meant, it is not only Our Only Government -- which is a conceit, there are many governments in the USA, with many overlapping jurisdictions within/among -- that causes us pain. public sector and corporate sector alike are playing a simplified version of life that encourages, as chris cobb said, value farming rather than value adding. "the government" is only one way that this shows.

how i think we're living in the past is that -- can i put this simply -- we still believe in plantations -- we've just virtualized them -- switching them from land-holdling operations, to wealth-holding. it seems to me that the change of limiting liability for corporations was about defining money as land. this created another frontier, but it was one that could only be settled by people who already had money. you couldn't physically travel there. only financially.

we like to think that people with a good idea and some bizskills can stake their claim, but this is false, because, since the land doesn't exist, it's really easy for someone with a lot of money to wipe out your claim, because in many ways your land "exists" in as much as people believe it exists. eminent domain can be established with saturation marketing. (this metaphor allows a little stretch -- you can look at local economies -- EXtensive wealth development -- as "native" -- and corporate economies -- INtensive wealth development -- as colonial -- which is fun!)

the reason this is all about living in the past is that we know and have known for quite a time now that there are real physical limits of abuse the earth can take, and communities can take. we've passed those limits essentially because of virtual land inflation -- allowing very rich people to accumulate fake land at a pace much faster than the physical land could support.

that may not make any sense, but i think it's very interesting as it is.

i am "anonymous" and i approved that message about virtual plantations.

Ah, thank you. That's much more informative.

I agree with it, too, to a large extent. I think that people with bizskills and good ideas can eke out a good living, though. True that people with a lot of money can squash anybody, but why bother, 99% of the time. Bill Gates came from essentially nothing, and now he's one of the largest plantation holders out there.

Aguably, he had to get there at some expense to his soul, but that's hardly my problem...


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